Russian-Iranian Defense Nexus: Implications for Ukraine and the West

Iran has finalized a deal with Russia to procure Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets, attack helicopters, and military trainer aircraft. The deal, confirmed by Iranian Deputy Defense Minister General Mahdi Farahi, is part of intensified cooperation between the two countries, which has largely facilitated Iran’s modernization and development of its air and naval forces. The recent expansion of this partnership threatens Western interests in the wider region and could pose future risks to global stability.

Iran’s military assistance was more reliant on China than Russia during the 1990s and early 2000s. However, China abstained from exporting sophisticated weaponry to Iran due to concerns over possible sanctions and an open confrontation with the United States.

Iran and Russia have developed strategic ties, with Moscow aiding Tehran in acquiring modern military technology. The Kremlin’s war against Ukraine fueled this partnership. During the initial conflict, Moscow struggled with Ukrainian weaponry and equipment losses. Iran provided cheap loitering munitions and Shahed “kamikaze” drones, which Russia used to launch attacks on Kyiv and Ukraine’s infrastructure.

Tehran and Moscow’s partnership benefits not only Russian military operations but also Iran, which has been unable to produce modernized attack helicopters and fighter jets due to stringent Western sanctions. The November agreement entails Russia delivering an unspecified number of Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets, Mil Mi-28 attack helicopters, and Yakovlev Yak-130 jet trainers to Iran, marking the first time Tehran has purchased modern fighter jets since the 1990s.

The Russian-Iranian agreement has raised concerns in the United States, Israel, and some Persian Gulf monarchies about Iran’s potential military might in the wider region. Since the UN Security Council ban on Iran’s export and import of long-range missiles expired on October 18, Tehran has declared that it is no longer restricted in developing its cruise and ballistic missile programs and sharing that technology with its partners. This has led to speculation that Iran will begin sending long-range missiles to Russia in large quantities.

Israel is concerned about Russia’s support for Iran’s defense industry modernization, viewing the ongoing Hamas conflict as part of Tehran’s broader proxy war against Israel.The November agreement may encourage Iran to become more active in the conflict, but Russia is unlikely to encourage Iran to use new fighter jets or helicopters against Israel.

The new defense deal may pave the way for a more comprehensive military partnership between Moscow and Tehran. The Iranian Air Force currently sits in a highly vulnerable position, with Cold War-era aircraft and helicopters. Russia and Iran are expected to enhance defense cooperation, with the Sukhoi Su-35s and Mil Mi-28 attack helicopters being introduced. Moscow has lifted restrictions on Iranian arms imports and exports, promoting increased cooperation. This could potentially fuel a renewed Russian offensive against Ukraine in 2024.

IranRussiaRussian-Iranian DefenseRussian-Iranian Defense Nexus: Implications for Ukraine and the West